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There are some mysterious lights you're supposed to be able to see in Marfa, Texas. Alien spacecraft? Scuttling elves? Who knows. But as I drive into town, there's a sight more irresistible by far than unexplained lights. From a bridge on the highway, I see to my right a young couple at a table in the open next to a building. In the brilliant mid-afternoon sun, they sit as if in a Toulouse-Lautrec painting, wine bottle and two glasses between them. What on earth?
Irresistible. Outside the building is a huge blue sign saying, simply, "Cu". I turn past it, around the building to the back. The couple looks at me, bewildered, as I drive up. I was passing, I say, saw you guys sitting like this and I had to come ask what this is about. Mind if I take a picture?
Big smiles, now. Her name is Rebecca, his is Kent and they don't mind me taking a picture. Come on in, she says, take a look around, have a glass of wine with us while you're about it! The red stuff is from a local winery I had passed a few miles outside town. Not bad, as far as this not-quite-wine-expert can judge, though one glass is ample thank you. Just inside the doorway, rock music blares from an extremely stylish portable CD player, all art-deco curves and pastel shades. Why do I never find equipment like this?
Rebecca walks me through the building. It's a property that's been in her family for a while. Her uncle used to run some kind of restaurant here, but closed it down years ago. Now she has moved here from Key West, Florida, to see if she can succeed where her uncle failed. She is remodelling the place and will set up an eatery. Coffee, tea, soups, sandwiches.
Really? Here in Marfa? Will she get enough of a clientele from among people who come in search of odd lights?
Kent, who's from nearby Alpine, answers that one. Oh yeah, he says. This town's about more than the lights. It has become a sort of art destination now. There's the Chinati Foundation Museum that's quite well known, but also lots of smaller galleries and studios.
Really? Here in Marfa? Why? One of those imponderables, I suppose. Warmth, desert climate, blue skies, maybe those are reasons enough. Rebecca, she wants to cater to those arty visitors.
And while she's showing me around, she points to several copper etchings by another uncle that she will mount on the walls, and this room will be the Copper Kitchen, and that one the Copper Portico, and that other one over there the Copper Something Else ... I interrupt to tell her of Bombay's well-known "Copper Chimney" restaurants. She smiles and points behind me. Her own chimney. We got that one covered, she says.
And that's when the (copper) penny drops. The blue sign outside. "Cu", meaning copper. My hard-learned school chemistry lessons, finally of some use.
Outside LA a few days later, I have reason to remember those lessons again. As in, how does salt react with various unidentifiable materials?
I'm over two hundred feet below sea level here. No diving apparatus, I'm not even wearing a swimsuit. What's a man to do? Me, I stop and watch the birds -- seagulls, lapwings, swifts. Write two postcards to people in Bombay, which I just had to do. Take a photograph of a young couple and their pitbull, she leaning her head against his shoulder. Wander through a Dali-like landscape of long-abandoned structures, yes those artifacts I mentioned.
All of which you can do too, if you make your way to Bombay Beach, California, outside LA. (Now you know why I had to write to Bombay). Sunbaked town on the shore of the Salton Sea, a large inland salt lake in southern California, 200-something feet below sea level. I mean, I saw this name on the map and I knew I had to visit.
And while there, I ask person after person, why the name? Only the girl with the pitbull offers any kind of answer: "It was bombed in the war."
Really? Which war?
"You know, the World War. The Air Force used to bomb this place. Bomb, get it? So it's Bombay."
I look around incredulously. Bombed? The town looks like it has seen better days and probably will never see them again, but it was bombed? And why? I turn back to her, but with an elegant toss of her long blond hair, she, boyfriend and dog have resumed their stroll.
Frank at the community center, 81 years old with a stud in his left ear, is happy to talk about the town. It was developed by a real estate man early last century, as a fishing resort. He laid out the street grid, built a marina and the first few houses, and sold them. "Was a nice place to grow up", says Frank wistfully, "I learned to waterski out there."
In the mid-70s, a series of tropical storms caused the Salton Sea to rise and flood an entire section of town. Those residents had to leave. Later, those who stayed on built a dike to protect their homes. In the years since, the Sea level has fallen, and the town is trying to recover. "But it's too late for us", says Frank, wistful still. Salton Sea is polluted and does not attract watersport and fishing enthusiasts as it used to. Though the town is considering various measures to clean it up, its population of a few hundred is no kind of base to raise the funds to do something that massive.
Outside, beyond the dike, it gets surreal. Beams and tyres and assorted other junk are stuck in seriously salt-encrusted mud. (My chemistry, my chemistry). There's an abandoned trailer, I think that's what it is, and inside it a rusting, crumbling oven. Hanging from the beam of another once-edifice is the shell of some unidentifiable electronic device, wires and chips dangling in the breeze.
And with this as a backdrop, a young couple and their pitbull.
Bombay Beach, mystifying and oddly sad. Yes, I had to visit.
But speaking of mystifying, what about those Marfa lights? Well, nearing sunset that same day I shared wine with Rebecca and Kent, I drive out of town to see for myself. At the Marfa Mystery Lights Viewing Platform (yes), there are four or five people already waiting. Immediately, I can see a red light blinking steadily at the base of a distant low hill. It blinks like that for the two-and-a-half hours I spend getting slowly frozen there. A warning light on a pole, clearly. Above it, along the crest of the hill and the adjoining ridge, there's an occasional white light that appears and spends about ten minutes moving to the right and gradually lower, until it disappears. Car headlights, along the highway that I myself drove earlier today, to get to Marfa.
Apart from those, the fingernail moon and the emerging stars, there are no unexplained lights.
When it's completely dark, I can no longer see the hill outlined against a lighter sky. That's when a troop of completely drunk men stagger onto the Platform, asking through fumes of beer, "Where's the lights? Huh?" I haven't seen them yet, I say, but that's clearly not a good enough answer for them. Pointing in turn at the blinking red light, a slowly moving headlight and a bright star, they ask: "What about those, dude?" Those are not the lights, I say. They shake their heads in disgust and shuffle off.
They ask the same questions of a couple to my left. In a fruity English accent, the man says: "See that blinking red light? It's been moving up, down, left, right, every which way. Those white lights above it? I don't know, but they move pretty weirdly too!" The woman backs him. "Yes, and look them now," she shouts enthusiastically. "The red one is drifting upward, look, look! This is brilliant!"
I realize what's happening. Because the skyline is no longer visible, you see these lights in relation to each other against the darkness, and it's easy to let the motion of the white ones fool you into believing that the stationary red one is moving. Feebly, I try to explain this, but it's no use. All these people are sure they're looking at THE Marfa lights, and who am I to sway that faith?
But that English accent? It registers, eventually, with one of the drunks. He asks the man, I swear I am not making this up, "So which part of Texas are you guys from? Australia?"
The man from England shoots back: "Devon, England."
Surreal, for sure. A while later and chilled to my bones, I depart the Platform, disappointed that I haven't seen the Marfa lights. Still on the Platform are several others, exultant that they have.
That's the mystery of Marfa.